Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice Review – A Thrilling Yet Imperfect Mythic Cornerstone For DC’s New Universe

Zack Snyder’s “Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice” has finally arrived. Ever since 2013’s “Man of Steel”, many people have developed a negative stance on this production, since Zack Snyder’s Superman reboot depicted a Superman that was less colorful, more dramatic and more controversial than previous on-screen incarnations. While the movie had issues, I found it a very good, fresh modern Superman story.

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I’ve never had much of a problem with Zack Snyder as a director, nor did I have many issues with the contentious elements of that movie. I didn’t mind the look or the tone, as I considered it a dramatic and almost mythic display of Superman’s world. The mass destruction in the final battle with Zod I found to be a natural consequence of gods among us at odds with each other, and I was genuinely surprised to see people clinging to that criticism so strongly after the movie released. For better or for worse they did, and in turn that element of “Man of Steel” becomes a motivating factor for the plot in “Batman V Superman”. Fans and general audiences seem to have had a divided response to this film, and just recently the critical reaction has proven to be mixed to negative, while the fan reaction has leaned more positive.

So how do I, a mild supporter of Man of Steel, and general optimist of comic book cinema feel about “Batman V Superman”? If I had to sum it up (which I do), I’d say that it’s an operatic, flawed and ultimately satisfying action drama, for those ready for its moody and serious tone.

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A Fresh and Serious Style For the DCEU

This film extends the tone and approach to the universe that “Man of Steel” set up, but it gives us more of what we want out of a film like this. It expands the universe, diversifies the color palette (a bit), introduces a bit more levity, and it retains what I believe is an important fundamental difference between these films and Marvel’s films: The characters and their world are mythic, almost mythological and elemental. While Marvel shows a world closer to our everyday lives, with pop-art heroes who are largely relatable and human like us despite their abilities, DC Extended Universe has taken their own unique approach to these characters and this world, one that I think works for their source material. These characters represent gods, demigods and mortals of popular ancient myth. They are iconic and statuesque, and the ultimate fate of worlds lies on their larger-than-life shoulders. I for one am glad that each studio is taking a unique approach to their movies. Superhero movies shouldn’t all look the same or feel too similar, or else they’d run the risk of growing stale, at which point the general audience would grow sick of them and stop seeing them.

The look of this film often reminds me of Alex Ross’s DC work. This is especially apparent in many scenes featuring Superman acting as a global force of rescue. Being praised by civilians at Mexico’s Day of the Dead ceremony, saving an overturned tanker in the Arctic and appearing as a savior to victims of a massive flood are all very reminiscent of the Ross-illustrated “Superman: Peace on Earth”.

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A Noble But Burdened Hero

Superman in this film is definitely an evolution of his “Man of Steel” version. He’s more developed and mature, but he’s now dealing with new struggles. This version of Superman is not for everybody, and still does not quite resemble the beloved Christopher Reeve version of the character (not that it needs to). But this continues to be a valid and compelling modern Superman. Instead of an unfailingly all-powerful and unflinchingly positive Silver age figure, he’s an inherently good but still conflicted and sometimes confused hero. He fulfills more of the classic version of Superman many are used to, saving people all over the world and showing more emotion and compassion for what happens to people. However he still struggles to understand his place in a world that proves more difficult and complicated for him the more he tries to help. He also strives to balance his complicated love for the world with his unyielding love for Lois Lane. While the character and his issues could have gotten more development in this movie, he is still more human and more interesting than he was in “Man of Steel”.

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The Batman I’ve Wanted For Years

Speaking of personal issues, let’s talk about this brand new version of Batman! This version draws heavily from the broken, seasoned version of the character from Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns” comic. Bruce Wayne resents Superman for the destruction he brought to Metropolis, and that combined with his earned cynicism helps build to his conflict with Superman.

I think it’s a fairly easy call to make that, for me personally, this is my favorite on-screen Batman. Him and his world are executed very well, and it also happens to be a version of Batman that I’ve been waiting to see on-screen for a long time. I love Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy, but once it was over I was ready for something different. A depiction of Batman that was more theatrical and more resembled some of my favorite Batman comics. What we got is a darker and more brutal version of the Batman from Rocksteady’s “Arkham” series of video games, which in turn is a darker and more brutal version of the Batman from the classic 1990s animated series.

Much of the Batmobile action and combat sequences look so much like scenarios from the “Arkham” video games, it’s just incredible. And, to touch on what may end up being a controversial element of this movie…yes, Batman basically kills people. Many will likely feel strongly about this, I however do not. We’ve hung our hats on Batman’s “no-kill” rule very strongly since 2005’s “Batman Begins”, but its prominence in Batman’s methods vary story-to-story. I’d compare the way he kills in this movie with the way he kills people in Tim Burton’s Batman movies. It’s not anything that made a big deal of, he just makes some actions that kind of vaguely seem like someone would die from them. I don’t have an issue with it, and it even fits in better with this broken-version of Batman that we have in this story. I really buy, more than ever before, that violent criminals would legitimately be scared of this Batman. He even has a scene or two that are suspenseful and frightening, which is very exciting to see for this new Dark Knight.

Ben Affleck, as he’s been proving for recent years, is a fantastic actor and artist, and he fulfilled both the role of Batman and the role of Bruce Wayne is a thrilling and convincing way. His relationship with Alfred feels organic and storied, and his war-weary cynic contrasts well with Superman’s inexperience and compassion.

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Day Versus Night

I feel the presentation of Bruce and Clark’s differing worlds is well-done in a subtler-than-expected way. The entire film has a consistent visual look and tone, but there is contrast between the visuals when alternating between the building plots of Clark and Bruce. There are many instances when a brighter daytime scene with Clark will be immediately juxtaposed with a visually-darker shot of Bruce’s world, shots often composed in parallel ways that flow well into one another.

The movie pays good attention to the ideological differences that define Clark and Bruce, and provide enough events that strain the already-present tension between them. I like how they depicted Clark Kent not as an affable persona but as an everyman who strives for old-fashioned journalistic ambition, pertaining specifically to how Clark feels about Batman’s brutality.

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The titular battle between Batman and Superman is mostly built up to well. Lex’s plan slowly appears to have been woven throughout all the major events of the film which works well as an elaborate and effective build-up, but the way the actual fight unfolds following Lex’s actions is somewhat contrived in practice, and it could be argued that the fight didn’t really need to happen based on the circumstances. The actual fight is a very good, very brutal encounter. It’s a dirty, scrappy fight that’s on Batman’s terms. We finally see what kryptonite can do in this universe, and you do indeed see a definitive winner in the fight.

But even with a winner, the fight still sees an emotional resolution that follows the physical conclusion. This resolution has proven surprisingly divisive with those I’ve spoken to. I won’t mention specifics, but the purpose of the revelation that spawns this resolution, while interesting, may come across as trivial to many. The peace between the two heroes that comes from this is definitely rushed and sudden, but I found it a fairly satisfying, and even somewhat powerful way to bring peace between them. I was worried that their fight would simply be interrupted by a greater threat, leading them to just forget what they were fighting about and go on to form a Justice League. Instead their peace comes from Batman’s realization of how close to the edge of the abyss he’s come, along with letting himself be blinded to Clark’s true character.

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A Very Intimidating But Very New Lex

Another aspect of this movie destined to be divisive is the characterization of the film’s main villain Lex Luthor. This is a reinvention of the character, combining elements from several previous incarnations into new elements invented for Jesse Eisenberg’s new portrayal. Lex is a genius billionaire public figure like he has been in modern comics for years, yet still retains some of his mad scientist roots from his inception. What’s new for Lex is being very young, based on modern millennial tech moguls rather than the Gordon Gekko-like greedy industrialist he was reinvented as in the 1980s. What’s also a newer aspect to Lex is his madness and his cruelty, which is more vicious than in previous versions but also restrained. As the heroes of the movie have dual identities, Lex has an awkward and sometimes goofy public facade, which he occasionally drops to reveal glimpses of a darkly complicated and malicious side to himself underneath. It’s a different but very compelling version of Lex Luthor for me. It’s not quite what many may expect and he many occasionally be too off-the-rails for some, but he serves the film as a formidable and unpredictable force of evil in this universe.

Lex largely has the same motivation as Batman in this story. They both are threatened by the powerlessness that Alfred speaks to Bruce about from when Superman first appeared to the world. They both are beings of the lower world, yet Lex wishes to rise to the level of the gods he hates so much. Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy and Snyder’s “Man of Steel” have some of the best villains in modern comic book cinema, and I believe this version of Lex Luthor lives up to this standard as well. This movie is his origin as a villain in some ways, and I’m excited to see what he’ll grow into in future installments to the DCEU.

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Strong Players Support Our Main Heroes

The supporting cast of this movie is also very good, with recurring characters from “Man of Steel” being more developed and new players making a great entrance to the canon. Amy Adams still carries a capable Lois Lane, who has a deeper and more endearing relationship with Clark in this chapter. Perry White is more Perry White-ish, brash and impatient. Jeremy Irons is a fantastic Alfred, sardonic and reliable. The standout though is Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman (also called Diana Prince). An enigmatic figure straying in and out of the outskirts of the story, his presence is intriguing, and her climactic appearance in costume is very memorable, and proved most exciting to the crowd I saw this movie with. She also happens to have the catchiest new theme song.

New Themes for a New Universe

To briefly touch on the score, it’s very good. Hans Zimmer (Man of Steel, the Dark Knight Trilogy) returns bringing newcomer Junkie XL (Mad Max: Fury Road, Deadpool) to collaborate with to compose a host of new themes for the film. New major characters get brand new themes; Wonder Woman has a catchy & exotic theme done on electric cello, Lex Luthor has a classical Mozart-esque tune with a two-note structure that sometimes sounds like a dark mirror of the two-note structure found in the lovely Clark Kent theme from “Man of Steel”. I’m glad some of Zimmer’s great tunes from the previous movie return, although I’m disappointed that the fantastic and triumphant “Flight” theme didn’t appear in this movie.

Batman gets several new themes, including one that’s intimidating and percussive, and one that’s softer and dramatic, accompanying his inner struggles and tragic flashbacks. I really like the new Batman themes, they strike me as similar to the great music from the “Arkham” games, with shades of previous Batman scores from Hans Zimmer and even Danny Elfman.

Making All The Stories Fit

I’d like to speak about the overall plot structure and pacing of the movie, which is where most of the film’s issues lie. Generally the plot is much tighter than “Man of Steel”, with less bits that feel extraneous. The entire film moves around between different plots very often. I didn’t find this a problem for my viewing, but I’d imagine the pace could be too fast for many. But I think, given how gradual and cerebral much of the plot builds up, there isn’t much of a sense that there is way too much transpiring in the story too quickly (with a few exceptions). But there are definite plot problems here, and there are some secondary stories that are edited into the plot glaringly-awkwardly. The way Lex’s plan evolves is very thematically appropriate but weaker plot-wise, relying on some questionable plot contrivances regarding Kryptonian tech he utilizes (however his methods of commandeering alien systems are no less convincing than they were in previous cinematic installments) . There are also some occasional moments that drag on too long, but much of the pacing and plot issues that stuck out to me can be narrowed down to a few significant select examples.

One subplot I specifically take issue with, or at least the way it was handled, is Lois Lane’s investigation with General Swanwick following the incident in Africa early in the movie. While I do consider this plot important because it builds up the eventual truth of how Lex has been working behind the scenes throughout the film, the way it’s edited into existing plots breaks them up in an undesirable way.

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Building Toward Justice League

Also, this movie does indeed have Justice League setup in it, some of which I thought was great and intriguing, and some of which I thought was totally unnecessary and broke the building tension.

Bruce Wayne’s brief vision is fantastic. In this potential future, he leads a resistance on an apocalyptic Earth against a tyrannical Superman in a setting very reminiscent of the NetherRealm Studios video game “Injustice: Gods Among Us”. It’s an incredible scene, that seems to draw inspiration from George Miller’s “Mad Max” as much as it does from Frank Miller’s work. This vision seeds Bruce’s uneasiness about impending doom in the distant future and his ambition to build the Justice League, along with another very compelling and surprising warning he receives that takes inspiration from a famous DC comics moment (I suspect fans may love this moment and non-fans may just be confused by it).

However, they went a bit too far with the Justice League setup in a separate sequence later in the film. Without mentioning specifics, the content featured in this scene was cool, but ultimately unnecessary, especially considering where it’s placed in the movie. It broke the momentum they were building at that point in the movie and really stuck out to me as awkward. However it doesn’t become too major of an issue for the movie, as it still isn’t nearly as bogged down by franchise setup as something like “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” or “Iron Man 2”.

Despite the story problems, the overall structure here is pretty solid. This movie’s not perfect, and it may not be for everybody as it’s distinct from some classic perceptions of the characters, but it’s without question valid and worth existing as a modern version of DC mythology.

It’s serious tone is unique and appropriate, but that consistent tone combined with the long runtime may make you feel a little taxed by the time the final battle with Doomsday comes around. Stick with it though. I enjoyed the climax far more than I expected I would. Judging from criticisms I heard going in, I was expecting an overly-long Michael Bay-style mishmash of mediocre CGI. But what I saw instead was a well-paced and well-choreographed fight with a beautifully-theatrical enemy that almost reminded me Solomon Grundy as much as it did the comic book Doomsday. The fight gives every hero a chance to do something that suits their abilities. Wonder Woman shows her might and incredible sword-and-shield fighting abilities, Batman is resourceful and masterfully evades the monster’s rampage (again reminding me of the “Arkham” video games), and Superman forges ahead in cooperation with the others as the world’s courageous hero, in a final stand to save his world. It all leads to a satisfying and surprisingly emotional climax that leaves the story in a very pivotal place. 

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Final Thoughts on the DCEU’s Bold New Chapter

I should mention that we know that we’ll be getting an extended cut of this movie this summer for the home release. Zack Snyder has stated that the extended cut is his original edit of the film, before Warner Bros. told him to reduce the runtime for theaters. It’s very possible that this extended version of the film is superior. It was his original version, and there’s even precedence for this being the case since Snyder’s 2009 “Watchmen” had a home extended cut that was definitely superior to the theatrical version. So I may have to hang a metaphorical asterisk above many of these pacing and editing problems I’m citing, since it’s entirely possible that some could be ironed out when that cut releases this summer.

A quick note regarding the general reception of this movie: I was in two screenings of this, one at a 10pm premiere and another at a 12pm matinee, and both screenings ended with applause from the audience. Normally the crowds I’m in, even at midnight premieres, don’t often applaud after movies much these days, so it was surprising to hear the enthusiam from even a afternoon matinee crowd. So even though critics seem to overall be fairly negative on this movie, it may just strike the general audience’s fancy. At the end of the day, that’s what really matters for this franchise to keep growing, and I for one very much look forward to that.

FINAL SCORE – 8/10

Brought down a bit by editing and pacing issues, but pushed forward by strong performances, amazing action and a compelling thematic narrative. Not as emotionally resonant as it could have been, but this is a thrilling yet imperfect mythic cornerstone for DC’s new universe.

+ Characters are well-acted bold takes, & written to provide strong purpose & contrast with one another in the story

+ Conflict between Batman and Superman has a lot of plot & ideological build-up

+ Visually striking, reminiscent of DC comics & animated movies

+ Compelling underlying themes regarding gods & men woven throughout the story

+ Great and diverse scores accompany new & existing characters

– Overall plot isn’t put together as well as it could have been, with slightly too much focus on Justice League set-up

– Some character turns are underdeveloped and lack some emotional resonance

There’s sure to be some contention with my opinions on this film, so please feel free to fire away in the comments at how you’d agree or disagree with my review of Batman V Superman!

Seth Zielinski is a mild-mannered movie, comic book & video game fan, and contributor to written and video content for The Geekiverse.

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